All Things Single (and More)

Unconventional wisdom about single life, friendship,
and the science of deception

This Review of Singled Out, by Joe Walker, is What I Always Wished Someone Would Write

final Singled Out TP cover

[Bella’s intro: Just weeks before my next book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, was about to launch, I received a review of my first non-academic book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, from Joe Walker, someone I don’t know but now greatly admire! I guess you could call that a biased opinion. Singled Out was first published in hardcover in 2006. Now, nine years later, here is the review I always wished someone would write. Joe Walker sent it to me in the form of a letter. I asked if I could publish it here and he agreed. Thanks, Joe!]

Review of Singled Out

Reviewed by Joe Walker

Birmingham, Alabama

Dear Bella,

In ancient Greece, among the many famous discussions that took place among their philosophers, two in particular stand out over time:  (1) What is the best way to live and (2) Is love a virtue or, as Plato said, “a divine madness”?  The first discussion more or less concluded, at least in that age, with Plato’s dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  No definitive conclusion was reached on the second question.  Of course, neither discussion has ever been or is likely to ever be fully resolved.

Fortunately for us, you have re-examined the good life here in America (and actually most elsewhere) today, and you have found it to be flawed in a dimension that most of us rarely think about – to wit, the conventional image of that good life over the last several decades has been to go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, and retire.  You understand the school, job, and retirement part.  You’re fine with the kids part if that’s what people want to do.  What bothers you is the marriage part.  Why do that, you ask.  Why go to the courthouse, get the legal piece of paper, merge all your assets and liabilities, go through all the self-serving drama of a ceremony (preferably on a beach), and then form a little isolationist family at the expense of other friendships, past and present?  And also why do that in the face of the high odds of divorce with its high emotional and financial costs?

Beyond that, however, is your broader question as to why people who don’t go through all that nonsense are then the ones stereotyped, stigmatized, and ignored by society. You call that bias “singlism”, and you say it consists of two parts: (1) a discrimination part and (2) matrimania, or the over-hyping of marriage and coupling.  Your answer, in short, is that single people, especially happy single people, threaten that comfortable world view of marrieds.  They give the lie to the unexamined premise that all they have to do is find a soulmate who will meet all their needs and love and care for them forever.  Then, having placed outlandish expectations and legal duties upon each other; and, thinking they can do and say things to each other they would never do as just friends, they wonder why the romance fades.  Next, and even worse, the couples then blame themselves and their partners (especially the latter), not the institution of marriage, when it fails.  Finally, they wonder why their single friends are so happy!  Happy singles show that getting married is not the only or even the best way to live, and they show that there is no reason for the irrational superiority that married people feel over singles.  Your contribution is to show how these issues are part of a long-standing and still current issue of social injustice which inhibits the attainment of the good life.

While you do not explicitly cite the Greeks debates, you examine how the quest for stability and safety has led people to yearn for that good life by having “No arguments about the components of a good and worthy life (your words) in the culture at large or in our own individual families.”  Yet, you say, as a result of the over-focus on marriage at the expense of our other relationships, “We seem to have lost perspective on ways to live a good and meaningful life.”  In your Chapter 4, you even find the modern work of Ethan Waters’ book Urban Tribes:  A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment as one of the few examples where that author is also specifically asking what makes a life valuable, worthwhile, and moral.

In regard to the second great Greek issue, what is love, we need to remember that the Greeks recognized many kinds of love beside eros (sexual passion) such as, philia (deep friendship and love of children), ludus (playful, flirting love), agape (love for mankind), pragma (long-standing love, understanding, patience and toleration), and philautia (compassionate love for oneself, as opposed to narcissism).

You seem to really understand, more than anyone else I have ever read, the value of the many different relationships (or Greek loves) we form in our lives; and you urge that these other treasured relationships not be denigrated due to marriage or due to the special care for one’s family.  You think we should hold dear those bonds of (original) family and friendship that in all likelihood have lasted and will continue to outlast the bonds of a marriage, which in reality usually only constitute an interlude (or several interludes) in our lives, not the other way around.  In other words, you argue for the neglected valuation of other relationships in our lives and what a central role they can and should play for our basic psychological health and for the deep satisfaction and meaning they give to our lives.

What you also see is the much bigger picture in wanting singles to not fall prey to the myths of marriage and family and to “disown everything that lies beyond the family circle.”  You want them to be proud of their work and respectful of the larger community in which they live.  In short, you argue against (insular) “family worship”, especially when it disengages us from our wider circle of important relationships. You also see that more important than the idea of family is who the members of your family really are, what they value, and also who are the other people in your life, your “friendship” family.  On this point, I love the quote in Richard Bach’s Illusions that “The bond that links your “true” family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”  Finally, I love your positive views of the world, especially the one that single parents can and do see raising kids a joy and not the burden the critics claim it to be.  On a personal note, I raised a daughter mostly solo myself and loved my role in that – it was one of the happiest times in my life.

With careful scientific and statistical analysis of extensive data on these issues, you reveal how the major 10 denigrating myths of singles’ lives are just that – myths, or false views of what singles and single life is like.  After reviewing the essentials of good research design needed to answer questions about these issues, in Chapter 2 you set up the “hypothetical” example (it turns out to be real) of a severely flawed drug study as an analogy to much of the current social research on marriage.  As a former university academic, I would have been glad to have used your example in my honors classes.  Your research reveals an honest and open inquiry into marriage outcomes, as many of the results surprise even you.  Almost every one of your claims is backed up by references to the existing research for against your theses, usually going to original sources for added rigor.  You take apart some of the most popular but poorly-researched and biased books and articles by prominent people in the field.  You also explain the more subtle but more widespread media bias towards the alleged benefits of marriage.

You then proceed to refute the charges about how married people “know better” than singles,  how singles are only interested in getting coupled or married, how singles are lonely and lead tragic lives, how singles are self-centered and immature, how singles are portrayed as overly neat or slovenly or promiscuous or not able to form relationships, how kids with single parents are doomed to lesser accomplishment and psychological health, how singles are “incomplete” without a partner, how singles grow old and die alone, and how “family values” justify economic discrimination against singles.

The obvious damage done by these myths lies in the economic harm done to singles by discrimination in government and businesses policies, but the worse damage, ironically, is done to the marrieds themselves in overly focusing on their coupled relationships to the exclusion of other equal or even more valuable relationships in their lives.  Fortunately, there seems to be little or no damage done to the happiness of singles as they do (almost have to) recognize the unheralded value of more extensive and diversified relationships – they don’t buy into the modern and flawed version of the “good life” but harken back to the ancient Greek emphasis on the value of different kinds of love for the various people in their lives.

In so doing, they put the proper emphasis on the profundity of friendships and relationships while dismantling the infantile obsession with the superficial rites and mythical infantile appeals of marriage.  In fact, as I said before, your discussion is ultimately concerned with how to live the “good life,” reminding us of the classical Greek discussions of that very concept versus the neurotic and over-simplistic longing of finding a fictitious one-and-only-ever “soulmate” to make one “complete.”

One of your very best culminating insights in this book is to realize that government should get out of the marriage business!  To that end, you cite Michael Kinsley’s essay (Slate, 2003) idea on private versions of marriage which keep church separate from state (no more religious vows at the courthouse!).

In summary, this is not just a good book, it is a great book.  Actually, it is more than just a book, it is a carefully researched, thorough, and brilliantly argued treatise on a terribly neglected and insidious social issue — marriage — that most people, as you say, rarely think about, much less question, except for the recent public discussions and the latest U.S. Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage.  If people did think about what marriage really means, in even broader and deeper terms, most people, you predict (and I agree) would probably find your revelations threatening to their own world view of a falsely-based “good and moral life” to which they are consciously, unconsciously, emotionally and often religiously attached.

Yet, you have done us all a tremendous favor by examining a prejudice long held and rarely scrutinized or analyzed – that getting married transforms us into better people and confers wide-ranging financial, emotional, health, and societal benefits.  It is all, you argue, an illusion which does enormous harm on a personal, cultural, and even economic level.  In short, you find that the traditional view of marriage does not live up to the benefits we have all been led to believe it confers.  You see that marriage is positively harmful in the myths it promotes and then frequently betrays; and it is further harmful in its resultant discrimination against single people.  Furthermore, the latter is not just an accumulation of petty social snubs, but is formally incorporated into economic bias in government regulations and in many common business practices.

As a writer, you come across as the “happy warrior”, in love with your subject.  You take on the issues head first, tearing apart the fallacious arguments given to support them.  Yet you respond to your opponents’ fallacious arguments in favor of marriage while sympathizing with and understanding how the system has conditioned their thinking all their lives.  You fully understand the difficulty of breaking with long-standing prejudices and injustices comparable to the difficulties the country experienced transforming its biases in adjusting to the major civil rights issues over these last few decades, especially in the civil rights and gay movements.

One has to admire your courage to write this book, your honesty, your conviction, and how graciously you respond to the most inane criticisms and insults.  Furthermore, you have pointed to constructive, practical, and even innovative ways to meet the changes you propose.

I admire your honesty about the relative importance of your subject, straightforwardly admitting it does not merit the importance of say, the issues of racism or sexism.  Still, singlism is there, it is harmful in a major way, and relatively few voices and judicial decisions have yet to join you in this controversy.  It is, as you say, the problem that has no name, until now, thanks to your insights and efforts.  Where I think you have succeeded most spectacularly is in bringing the issue with no name (singlism) to public awareness.  Cultural change must happen first before political changes can occur, and you’ve given that a tremendous boost, not only with your books, but with your public blogs and lectures and correspondence.

Your writing style is lively, easy to understand, and humorous.  Yet you do not skimp on the rigor of research to buttress your points,

On your internet videos, your almost gleeful style of talking reminds me of the late giant in economics, Milton Friedman, who with a twinkle in his eye, used constant mirth and utmost sympathy with his opponents and still presented the most rigorous logic and data to demolish the most illogical arguments of some the most prestigious and arrogant opponents of individual freedom in his day.

In the same vein, you exalt individualism over the inherent collectivism of families (the smallest unit of communism, as I have facetiously said for years!).  In so doing, you argue for not only individual rights to be free of formal discrimination (in the tax code and in Social Security policies, for example), but also you encourage all of us to find ourselves and to find what makes us truly happy and to not allow ourselves to be socially bullied into the seductive institution of traditional legal marriage.  You clearly see the necessity and moral grandeur of individuality!

I personally am so grateful for your work and perspective and insight on the inanity of marriage.  I have never really believed in marriage, but I could not put my beliefs into words or bring so much research to bear on my beliefs besides the old cliché (however true) that “it’s only a piece of paper.”  So, let me personally thank you for everything you’ve done on this subject, the examination of marriage and love and relationships in general – it means so much to me to find the intelligence and rationality on this subject in a world thoroughly dominated so much by the opposite.

About the author:

Joe Walker, now 68, retired from teaching finance in the Collat School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in August of 2014 after 27 years.  Before that he taught economics for 10 years at the University of Montevallo, also in Alabama.  He co-parented his two sons, and mostly raised his daughter solo.  He remembers the period with children at home as one of the best in his life.  All three are now grown, happy, and very successful in their lives and careers.  Though all are coupled, none are married!  And neither is Joe, having found a more balanced and rational life without drama amidst a wealth of interests in friendships, writing, music, and travel, to name a few.  He found Bella DePaulo’s writings on the internet by searching for arguments against marriage, and he has been her loyal fan ever since.

Part 2: Getting Married Makes You Happier? Again, No

The_Science_of_Marri_Cover_for_Kindle, 2-28-15

[This post was originally published at Psychology Today. I just discovered that it disappeared! I have no idea why, but I thought I’d just republish it at my own site where I have control over what appears and disappears.]

In my previous post, I explained why no study has ever shown definitively that getting married causes people to become happier – and no study ever will. Here, I will critique the research (an unpublished working paper by Grover and Helliwell) that set off the latest round of matrimaniacal claims that we single people would be happier if only we would get married. The claims the authors are making are unapologetically causal: They think their research shows that getting married causes people to become happier. It doesn’t. The very premise of their claim (that married people are happier, and we just need to figure out if marriage is causing married people’s greater happiness) is undermined by some of their own findings – not that you would have read much about those results in any of the many media stories gleefully declaring a win for Team Marriage.

Places Where Married People Are Not Happier Than Single People

The authors argue that too many of the studies of the implications of marrying have been conducted in “western, educated, industrialized, and rich democracies” – or WEIRD places, for short. They are right that research in places such as North America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand is far more plentiful than research in other parts of the world. But there are relevant data from other places. Between 2005 and 2013, the Gallup World Poll collected life satisfaction ratings from many nations around the world. (“Happiness” studies are very often studies of life satisfaction.) The data are cross-sectional: married people were compared to not-married people at just one point in time.

Here are 5 findings I bet you did read much about in any of the barrage of articles or opinion pieces or blog posts about Grover and Helliwell’s research:

  1. In Latin America, single people are more satisfied with their lives than married people are.
  2. In the Caribbean, single people are more satisfied with their lives than married people are.
  3. In Sub-Saharan Africa, single people are more satisfied with their lives than married people are.
  4. In Southeast Asia, single people are just as satisfied with their lives as married people.
  5. In South Asia, single people are just as satisfied with their lives as married people.

All of these findings that belie the conventional wisdom that married people are happier than single people. What is especially telling is that the results come from comparisons that were already biased to advantage married people. The married group, so far as I can tell, includes only those people who are currently married. (I’ve emailed both authors to confirm this and I’ll update this post if I ever hear back.) That means that the findings are based on the cheater technique, whereby all of the people who got married and hated it are removed from the married group, making it easier to pretend to have shown that getting married makes you happier. But even with that big, unjustifiable advantage given to the married group, they still aren’t any happier than the single people (and sometimes significantly less happy) in Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.

What About the Research Showing that Any Increase in Happiness After Marrying Is Just a Honeymoon Effect?

If you have followed the research on getting married and getting happier even just casually, you may remember some findings that have gotten a fair amount of attention in the past. They are from a German longitudinal study, analyzed by Lucas and his colleagues, in which the same people were followed for years, as they stayed single or got married or unmarried. Probably the best known findings showed that those people who got married and stayed married (already a select group of all the people who ever got married) did show a brief and modest increase in happiness around the time of the wedding. Then within a year or maybe a few years, they went back to feeling as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. So, among people who got married and stayed married (but not those who later divorced), marriage resulted in a short period of feeling a bit happier – basically, a honeymoon effect. It didn’t last. (I discussed these results in Singled Out and elsewhere.)

Grover and Helliwell used the data from the British Household Panel Study to do the same kinds of analyses on a British sample. When they did the same analyses in the same way that Lucas and his colleagues did, they found the same thing: “…the long-term marriage effect for people who have been married at least six years is approximately zero.” Translation: By the time people have been married for six years, they are not any happier than they were when they were single.

Yes, this is from the working paper that got all that attention for declaring that getting married makes people happier. You see, the authors did not like the finding that any happiness boost after getting married is short-lived. They believe in marriage and its super powers. So they came up with a way to reanalyze the data to save the day for marriage. (If Lucas had found that marriage was lastingly wonderful, do you think the authors would have challenged the findings?)

Lucas included in his sample anyone who had gotten married and had been in the study for a number of years, even if only one or two of those years had been spent single. His analyses look at how much happier (if at all) people get after they marry, compared to when they were single. Grover and Helliwell argue that it’s not fair to include people who have only been in the study and single for a year or two before they married. In that short period of time before marrying, they reason, people are already becoming happier in anticipation of getting married. That anticipatory happiness, they think, is part of the benefit of getting married. If you compare how happy they are later in their marriage to how happy they were just a year or so before they married, then the increase in happiness (if there is one, and after a few years, there’s not) is going to be too small.

So the authors did new analyses in which they included in their sample only those people who were single and participating in the study for at least 5 years before they got married. Once they included only that subset of people, then they found that people who got married and stayed married were happier than they were when they were single, even six years into the marriage.

People who are marriage apologists often like to argue that marriage is more than just the relationship itself. Making that formal, legal commitment matters. It’s a piece of paper, and much more. People making this argument are usually saying that cohabitation isn’t good enough. Real, legal, official marriage is what’s special.

But with their five-years-single stipulation, Grover and Helliwell seem to want to be sure that the people they include in their analyses did not even have marriage in their vision when they first joined the study as single people. Then, once they get close to marrying, they might get happier, but that’s anticipatory happiness that belongs with the marriage effect – or at least should not be allowed to dampen the marriage effect (which is the supposed boost in happiness you get by marrying).

You can buy their argument or not. What’s clear, though, is that finding evidence to suggest that getting married makes people happier, is not a simple task. Even setting aside all of the methodological challenges I described in my previous post, researchers’ first attempts at demonstrating that marriage causes people to be lastingly happier have not been all that successful. And so researchers persist, trying this and that, including and excluding certain people, until they get results that seem to support their beliefs. You can be impressed if you want. I’m not.

In One Analysis of One Hypothesis with People from One Country, the Authors Did Not Use the Cheater Technique

One of the articles about the Grover and Helliwell research was titled, “Middle age is slightly less terrible when you’re married.” In addition to arguing that marriage causes people to be happier, Grover and Helliwell want to make the case that marriage is especially good for your well-being during middle age.

Maybe you know from reports of other research (I haven’t read it closely myself) that happiness tends to decrease over the early adult years, reaching a low point sometime around the late 40s, then gradually increasing again. It’s a “U-shaped” effect. Grover and Helliwell believe that the marriage advantage will be especially strong during that most miserable time of many adults’ lives. So if married people are happier than single people in the group being analyzed, then they will be especially happier during middle age. And if, as in places such as Latin America and the Caribbean, it is the single people who are happier than the married people, well then, the single people’s advantage will be smallest during middle age. Their evidence is mostly consistent with that, except for in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The authors’ first attempt to test the middle-age effect involved data from the UK Annual Population Survey. These data are cross-sectional: They compare people of different marital statuses at one point in time. As I explained in my previous post, these are the kinds of data that just cannot strongly support any causal statement. Initially, the authors compounded their cross-sectional problem by adding on top of it their use of the cheater technique. That’s the one where researchers who want to make the case for marriage do so by including in the married group only those people who are currently married, and setting aside all those people who got married, hated it, and got divorced. Then, if and when married people look better, they say, “See, getting married made people happier!” (It didn’t. The people who divorced also got married and it didn’t make them happier.)

If your big idea is that marriage is especially likely to make people happier during middle age, then the cheater technique becomes even more problematic than usual. By the time people reach middle age, many of them who once married have now divorced. So by middle age, the currently-married group is an even more select group than it was in the earlier adult years.

Now here’s the good news. The authors realized this. So they did something I have been urging researchers to do for about two decades: Compare everyone who ever got married to those who stayed single. If you want to talk about the implications of getting married, you need to include in your analyses everyone who ever got married.

When the authors did that more appropriate analysis, they found that the marriage advantage was smaller than it was when they used the cheater technique. But for their one sample (UK), there was still an advantage. For all the reasons I described previously, this result does not demonstrate causality; it does not show that getting married makes people happier. But it is a better approximation to a causal argument than arguments based on the cheater technique.

Because it is better in that way, it is worth looking at the results a bit more closely. The authors compared the life satisfaction of ever-married people and always-single people for 14 different age groups, starting with 25 or younger and continuing through 86 and older. On an 11-point scale of life satisfaction (0 through 10), the biggest difference in happiness between the two groups was just under 0.4 points. For five of the 14 age groups, the difference favoring the ever-married people was 0.2 points or less. For a sixth group, the oldest group, the always-single people were happier than the ever-married people. I don’t think these results support a simple fortune cookie type message, “Get married, be happier.”

The authors realized the bias in the cheater technique. So why did they not use the more appropriate analyses throughout their research? Maybe because a more defensible way of testing the supposed benefit of getting married would not produce the desired results. In an American longitudinal study of marriage, the researchers conducted analyses that did and did not involve the cheater technique. They looked at happiness and other outcomes, too. They wanted to know if getting married resulted in benefits that remained after the first few years. When they used the appropriate non-cheater technique to look at the outcomes for people who had gotten married or partnered at least four years ago, they found that those who had gotten married were not happier, they were not any less depressed, they were not healthier, and they had no higher self-esteem.

There is one more claim made by the authors and repeated in the media that I want to critique – that the reason marriage makes people happier (a claim which I dispute) is because of the friendship between the spouses. The way the authors frame that issue is really telling. I’ll save that discussion for later.

Notes: (1) Thanks to Erin Albert, Kim Calvert, Carol Hynson, and Elizabeth Saenger for the heads-up about this latest bout of matrimania. (2) Image is from Google Images, labeled for reuse. (3) In their working paper, the authors asked that anyone quoting from it provide full credit, including the copyright. So I fully credit Grover and Helliwell, [copyright symbol] 2014 by Shawn Grover and John F. Helliwell, for NBER working paper 20794. (4) If you want to read other critiques of other claims about getting married and getting happy or healthy or living longer, try Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong or the shorter version, The Science of Marriage: What We Know That Just Isn’t So

Single Parents and Their Children: The Good News No One Ever Tells You

cover, single parents bookI have been scrutinizing the research on single parents and their children for more than a decade. I’ve learned lots of things, but perhaps the most important one is this: all those predictions you hear about how the children of single parents are doomed are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong.

Continue reading

Want to Join the Community of Single People?

Henri Matisse, Jazz, XII The Swimmer in the PoolAll sorts of people get in touch with me, hoping that I can put them in touch with other single people who want to live their single lives fully (and not just escape them). Others want me to point them to helpful resources. A few of the many examples are listed below in the next section, “What Are People Looking For?”

Every time I get one of those requests, I try to generate names or resources offhand. That’s not very efficient. Plus, I only know a very tiny fraction of the single people (or scholars of single people or professionals who work with single people) who might be interested in helping out or who might also want to be in touch with other single people (for friendship, discussion, workshops, or just about anything else except dating).

So, for anyone who is interested, I would like to start a Community of Single People. I want to know who you are so I can connect you with interested parties (as described below). Once the Community is launched, however, members who want to do more with the community can also use it in other ways (for example, to discuss on Facebook anything that interests them).

Continue reading

Many E-Books on Sale

cover, Best of Single LifeFor many (though not all) of my e-books, I have the option to put them on sale for seven days, several times a year. One of those weeks is starting today, June 13, 2015, I think at 8 a.m. (If you are reading this after June 20, 2015, this particular sale is over but the regular prices of all of these books are still affordable.)

These are Kindle countdown sales. The way they work is that the prices of the books are at their very lowest (99 cents) on the first day, then gradually increase over the course of the week to their usual list price. The sale is ongoing at both the US and the UK Amazon sites.

Continue reading

My Monthly Column for Unmarried Equality

UE imageI’m delighted to announce that, as of April of 2015, I am now writing a monthly column for Unmarried Equality (UE), an advocacy group that has been “standing up for fairness and equal treatment of all people regardless of marital status since 1998.”

I’ll post the links to those columns here, with the most recent ones on top. At the UE site, the column is called “Bella’s Blog.”

Continue reading